Saturday, December 8, 2012

Vivian Girls get Off! on Torching Swans (CD Reviews) by Alison Ross

Cole Alexander of The Black Lips said once that Vivian Girls are the Lip's sister band. Upon hearing Vivian Girls, I decided he was wrong. While there are similarities between the two, I think The Coathangers are actually more like the sonic sisters of The Black Lips. But the only reason any of this matters at all is because I wanted a reference point when seeking out the music of Vivian Girls. I expected rawer, more jaded stylings, but instead of primal screeches and scratchy cacophony we get a polished approach to channeling Motown moods and 60s garage grit. The lilting vocals swim around swirling, cleanly reverberating guitars to create ethereal garage-rock melodies. And there are enough hooks on this album to snag any brain that is eager to sharpen its claws on clever catchy choruses.

Off! Is one of those bands that sounds like all other bands of its genre, and yet like none other. Indeed, it's perhaps the faintest flourish of garage rock that distinguishes Off! from their punk kindred. Off!'s songs are almost absurdly compact, with the ragged contours one would expect from the genre. Of course, these slender songs pack a punishing punch. Off! is completely unembellished, in-your-face punk rock. And yet, Off! lack the sinister snarl of bands of their hardcore heritage and any palpable hint of malevolence is mitigated by the vocals, which are rife in nuanced irony. Fragmented lyrics threaten to undermine their subversive political purpose until you realize that maybe the poisonous rage is more potent that way, as it slowly snakes its way into your system. Nonetheless, the songs on this album will make you want to crack out the skateboard...or better yet, crack some a polite way, of course.

I came very late to the Swans party, and I have yet to leave because I am so intrigued by their neo-gothic/industrial-folk-metal freak-outs. Swans have been around since the late 70s and their genesis is in the NYC No Wave scene (which basically razed all genres and supplanted them with a style-less style). During that time since then, Swans have nourished a cult-like fidelity among fans for their post-apocalyptic soundtrack sound and lyrics. The problem with the nihilism of Swans is the fact that it ends up producing the obverse effect of bringing hope to the spirit. It's a spiritual nihilism, as it were, which on the surface seems callously destructive - and yet the interior of this violent shell is laden with longing for human connection. In attempting to destroy frivolous illusions, Michael Gira creates a new reality, one fraught with perils, to be sure, but the perils of vulnerability rather than the dark antithesis. In their first albums in 13 years, Swans have not eschewed their dichotomous leanings toward spiritual nihilism, and nor have they softened their abrasiveness or fortified their fragilities. What they have done, it seems, at least to my ears (and I only own one of their previous albums) is heralded a new age of post-rock with a folk-industrial edge, wherein genres suddenly don't matter again because they are all intertwined, and where children can sing choruses and it only adds to the eeriness rather than diminishes it. Furthermore, vocalist/Swans mastermind Gira has solidified his position as gothic-cowyboy icon, and listeners are sure to find strange and alluring solace in his dystopian poetics.

In the 80s, Torche tunes would have been
ubiquit-ous on rock radio. But Payola precludes this from happening today, as the Nicklebacks and Coldplays of the world menace the airwaves with their shocking mediocrity. Of course, in the 80s, the members of Torche were gryrating in their diapers to radio-ready hits by their classic and arena rock heroes, but that's besides the point. The point is, modern-day rock radio sucks ass, and Torche has the abillity to redeem it. Their latest disc, Harmonicraft, is blatantly laden with sonic allusions to bands like Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, and so on. And yet, the band churns up these influences so competently into a tasty mash while adding their own fresh ingredients that it all seems fairly novel. Torche has been called "doom pop" and "stoner rock" and both labels are apt. They inhabit a paradox of sorts with their bouyant gloom, and they are also just sludgy enough to evoke imagery of black lightbulb-lit rooms that barely illuminate dense swirls of sweet smoke and half-passed out leather-clad pubescents. Sure, some of the tunes devolve into redundancy, but songs like the brash anthems "Letting Go" and "Kicking," plus the doomsday stomp of "Looking On," the trashy-thrashy "Kiss Me Dudely" and the boozy instrumental title track prove that Torche could easily revolutionize radio, if only given the chance.


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